What kind of milk is feta cheese made from? Can it be made with cow's milk? The simple answer is no — at least not in the European Union. Real feta must be made of at least 70 percent sheep's milk and up to 30 percent goat's milk, and it must be produced to definite specifications. Many cheeses on the market call themselves "feta" or "feta-type" cheeses, but there are standards for how genuine feta is made and what kind of milk is used.
The History of Feta
Feta cheese dates back to the eighth century B.C. when cheese made with sheep's milk was stored in brine. The cheese itself may come about thanks to an accidental discovery — milk curdled when it was transported inside animals' stomachs. Feta is made using curdled milk.
What's in a Name?
After 16 years of heated debate among member countries of the European Union, the EU's highest court finally awarded exclusivity of the name "feta" to Greece in 2005. The court set very specific requirements for how and where the cheese can be made:
- It must be made from pure sheep's milk, or it can be a mixture of sheep's and goat's milk that can include up to 30 percent goat's milk.
- Feta can only be produced in the regions of Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, Thessalia, Mainland Greece, the Peloponnese peninsula and the island of Mytilini, also known as Lesvos.
- The average composition of feta cheese must be 52.9 percent moisture, 26.2 percent fat, 16.7 percent proteins, 2.9 percent salt and 4.4 percent pH.
The court decided:
“In the view of the advocate general, ‘feta’ meets the requirements of a designation of origin in that it describes a cheese originating from a substantial part of Greece, whose characteristics derive from its geographical environment and its production, processing and preparation are carried out in a defined area.”
Characteristics of True Feta
The tight restrictions and requirements placed on its production make feta a semi-hard cheese — it crumbles well — that's white in color and tends to be a bit salty. Feta is tangy, but the degree of tang can vary depending on the exact diet of the sheep — what she eats can effectively season her milk. This is one significant reason why the court ruled that Greece "owns" feta cheese. True feta is the result of geographical factors unique to that country affecting the diets of livestock.
Similar cheeses are made with cow's milk — one called "telemes" is even produced in Greece. But cow's milk cheeses or combinations using cow's milk as an ingredient are not the same. The taste is very different.
Bulgaria makes a similar cheese that's creamier and much saltier. France's version is also creamy but more mild. Any cheese that uses more goat's milk than sheep's milk — or cow's milk instead of sheep's milk — tends to lack the sharp bite of feta.
Keep in mind, too, that feta cheese from other countries can be quite similar when it's made with the right percentages of sheep's and goat's milk, but those countries can't legally label their products as "feta" due to the 2005 EU court decision.